Applying for financial aid can be a daunting process, but there's no need to wing it when you can get expert advice.

Our federal income tax returns are complicated and it takes quite some time for us to get them filed. I know the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) requires financial information from our tax returns, so how long do we have to get that completed?

It is best to file the FAFSA as early as possible because some types of federal student aid are available on a first-come, first-served basis. It also provides an extra cushion if there are any errors and will help colleges prepare their financial aid award letters, which you and your student will need to make a final decision.

When is the actual FAFSA filing period?

For the 2017–18 year, you can apply October 1, 2016. Be sure to check with each school’s individual deadline. Try to gather as much documentation as possible in September so you will be ready to start completing the FAFSA when it’s released in October.

Do I have to manually input all of the information from our tax forms into the FAFSA?

If your tax returns have been submitted, you may be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) to automatically populate the form with information from your tax return.

The best advice is not to wait.

Our tax return won’t be completed – now what?

For the 2017–18 academic year, you will need information from your 2015 federal tax return. If your return is not finalized, you can estimate information based on your 2014 federal tax return and your financial circumstances from 2015. There is an Income Estimator on the FAFSA that can help estimate income if your situation has changed substantially due to divorce, illness or job loss. After you file your taxes, however, you will need to log back in to the FAFSA and make updates to reflect your accurate financial information.

Can we get an estimate of our potential federal student aid before we complete the FAFSA?

You can estimate your eligibility for federal student aid with the Department of Education’s FAFSA4caster.

We will probably encounter this issue each year – isn’t there something we can do?

This is a common issue for many families, so the schedule has been revised. On October 1 2016, the FAFSA will be available to families for the 2017–18 academic year. You will use your 2015 federal income tax returns to complete this FAFSA, which should be completed by then even with a six-month extension.

The best advice is not to wait. Complete the FAFSA as early as possible to give your student the best chance of receiving federal student aid.

Jodi Okun is founder and president of College Financial Aid Advisors and a Discover Student Loans brand ambassador. Visit her website at She is also the Money Expert on “Paying for College,” and was recently acknowledged as one of the “Top 30 Social Influencers in Personal Finance & Wealth.” She has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Mashable, US News & Education and The Huffington Post. The opinions expressed in this article are Jodi’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Discover Student Loans.

FAFSA is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.